Monday, February 6 2023

By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist

Preseason in the NFL might be a lot easier to get our heads around if everyone took the same approach as John Harbaugh. And, for that matter, Dan Campbell.

Full disclosure — the above statement in itself is paradoxical because Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens have scored a preseason A+ ever since 2016, while the Detroit Lions have been a flailing, floundering example of August awfulness over a similar time span.

Makes no sense? Well, that’s no surprise, given that the topic relates to the most confounding, discombobulating, reality-bending question that professional football has to offer.

Is winning in preseason important?

It sure is. Just look at the Ravens, who are on a 22-game preseason winning streak and have parlayed that into a 10-2 record in their first two regular season games over the past six years.

Er, sure isn’t. Teams that were perfect in the preseason between 2006-19 — before the slate was shortened to three games — combined for an underwhelming 230-255 in the campaigns that followed.

Excuse me, sure is. Prior to the COVID-scrapped 2020 preseason, none of the previous 11 Super Bowl champions posted a losing record during the exhibition tilts.

Ahem, sure isn’t — and here comes a real head-scratcher — both the 2008 Lions and the 2017 Cleveland Browns went 4-0 in the warmups, before subsequently embarking on majestically malevolent 0-16 fail-fests.

You can thank us later for successfully providing no resolution whatsoever on this question. For now, though, let’s peek at what’s going on.

The difficulty in evaluating preseason is that you don’t really know what you are looking at. Different teams have different approaches and different situations in terms of roster stability and late-summer emphasis.

The key similarity between Harbaugh, who has been in his job for 15 years, and Campbell, in position for just 19 months, is that both attach some greater meaning to preseason than a plain exercise in evaluation.

They want to win because they believe winning is a habit. Campbell, in short, wants a bit of what Harbaugh is cooking.

Thus, while right now is most certainly about players trying to secure a place on the roster and coordinators working through various schemes while everyone sets up for Week 1, the mentality of attempting victory with all your might is one that holds.

It doesn’t get in the way of anything. Harbaugh isn’t going to suddenly tell Lamar Jackson to take off those frankly awesome sunglasses and send him out there for a fourth-quarter drive. And Campbell’s not going to dent a prospect’s chances of making an impact by benching him at a key moment.

It’s just that whatever is being tried out, whatever experiments are taking place, the coaches won’t let it obscure the prioritization of winning while they’re doing it. That’s what Harbaugh is all about.

“All good things come to an end. It is not the thing we are thinking about the most by any stretch of the imagination,” Harbaugh said when asked about his team’s preseason streak following a 24-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

“Guys are just out there trying to play ball. They are trying to compete. They compete at everything. They compete at basketball in the pool. We had a volleyball game out here the other day, and you’ve got all these guys competing like crazy. They’re going to compete over throwing crumpled-up paper in the trash can. They want to find a way to win. That’s what you love about it.

“What this so-called streak shows you is that over a lot of years, a lot of guys have found a way to come through at the end. That’s what you’re proud of. Some of those guys had long NFL careers and some didn’t. But it means something to them.”

Campbell, viewer-favorite of the “Hard Knocks” series and by all accounts a thoroughly likable dude, wants to copy some of that.

Naturally, he was delighted when the Lions snapped the NFL’s longest preseason losing streak with a 27-26 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, and felt it could be another positive step in the culture change he is overseeing.

“It is important,” Campbell said. “(Winning) has got to be part of our DNA, it’s got to become part of who we are, and we have to embrace every moment and treat it like it’s your last moment. Because if you don’t, and you just accept it, then you’ll just be average or above average and that’s not good enough in this league.”

The NFL hasn’t known quite how to handle its preseason conundrum for a while. It is hard to imagine as things stand, but there used to be six exhibition games ahead of a 14-game regular season. 

If we’re being truthful, no one cried too much when preseason was canceled in 2020, and there were mostly approving nods when the present “three-plus-17” model was adopted.

“What we should be doing is always to the highest quality, and I’m not sure preseason games meet that level right now,” commissioner Roger Goodell said three years ago.

Preseason is what it is. No one is pretending it is the most lovable time of year. It does a good job of providing anticipation before the real thing and lets us all know to gear up and get into football mode again.

If you’re going to sweat on the results, good luck. Confusion will reign.

Who knows, though? If the approach of Harbaugh and Campbell starts to become contagious, maybe these games will matter after all, to everyone.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.


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